One thing that we should establish right off the bat here is that the Christmas Annual is an primarily an act of fan service. In The Wicked + The Divine, Laura doesn’t become a major participant in the action until six months into the Recurrence. Baal and Sakhmet debut in August of 2013 with all but Baphomet, Dionysus, the Norns, and Persephone following by New Year’s 2014; that’s a lot of start up that the comic just skips to get on with the story. Gillen actually explains in the preface to the issue that while he’s gotten to hit on a lot of key scenes from this time period in flashbacks, he’s missed a lot of other moments that he would have liked to show but couldn’t fit into the series before (most of it is various characters having sex). Consequently, the point of the Christmas Annual is to go back and hit on those scenes that help give some extra texture to various characters and their relationships as well as to give a bunch of artists a chance to draw hot young gods having sexy times with one another.
The cover of the issue is a special affair. As with all the specials, McKelvie does the primary cover as a nod to his involvement with the series without requiring him to do an extra issue on top of the team’s normal publication schedule. Instead of featuring any particular individual or group of characters, the cover’s done in the style of a Christmas sweater with the Pantheon’s icons bordering the series logo. It’s adorably kitschy, and a year later I’m pretty sure it’s the one piece of potential merch that Gillen and McKelvie haven’t actually created. I know that if it were to ever materialize, I would wear it during the holiday season with the same fervor that a friend of mine wears his sweater depicting the Battle of Hoth. The general message being communicated is that this is an issue all meant in good fun; nothing extremely upsetting or revelatory will be happening here (though there will be mild upsets, like with Tara and Ananke’s story).
The meat of the issue goes to seven short stories that Gillen has written focused mostly on the time between August 2013 and January 2014; the final story jumps forward a few months to Laura and Baal’s first sexual encounter in the immediate aftermath of the events at Fandemonium. The longest stories in the set only go to six pages; these are meant to be vignettes and small character moments, not huge plot developments. You could think of them as sort of WicDiv fanfiction if the fanfiction were written by the author of the original work. Most of these moments have been alluded to in the main series, and these are all just opportunities to see more of what was going during those events.
The first story focuses on the budding romance between Baal and Inanna. When we start the series their relationship is more or less done after the recent revelations that Lucifer had sex with Inanna behind Baal’s back (the larger context of that is that Inanna, in addition to being pansexual, is also polyamorous, but a little irresponsibly so; Baal’s anger is primarily directed at Lucifer who just enjoys screwing with people). We know that Inanna was Baal’s first boyfriend, and the relationship had complex enough feelings attached to it that Baal didn’t want it made public. The story we get here is mostly about Baal coming to terms with his attraction to Inanna and their first time together (on the roof of the under construction Valhalla, because why do anything small?). It’s a sweet story that underscores Inanna’s gentle nature and Baal’s struggles with his own identity; despite his constant protestations that he’s comfortable with who he is, Baal seems to be low key conflicted about a lot of his life as a god, and exploring the boundaries of his sexuality is a major part of that. This sequence is also hands down the sexiest part of the issue (probably a good reason to put it first); even as someone who’s reasonably confident that he’s straight, I get why Baal goes for Inanna–the way that Kris Anka draws him is just hot.
Following the Bananna party, we switch over to a story about the one time that Lucifer had sex with Sakhmet; in more typical WicDiv fashion, the interesting part of the story happens in the aftermath of the sex. Baal, having just discovered that Inanna and Lucifer got it on, barges in on her and Sakhmet to confront Lucifer. It’s clear even this early in the fallout of the event that Baal blames Lucifer way more than he blames Inanna. Sakhmet doesn’t want anything more to do with Lucifer because she’s “a bad person.” Lucifer’s incredulous about Sakhmet judging Lucifer’s behavior, but the situation makes a lot of sense. Sakhmet is careless and hedonistic, but we’ve never seen any evidence that she’s interested in disrupting other people’s relationships. She’d happily go at it with any willing partner that she found attractive, but she doesn’t go looking to make drama the way that Lucifer does. Really, you could say that Sakhmet is the most anti-drama of anyone in the Pantheon. She likes to do her thing, and she’s happy to let you keep doing yours as long as it doesn’t interfere. In contrast, Lucifer is all about deliberately making things messy.
In the middle of the issue we get a couple of stories focused on characters who remain entirely outside the Baal/Inanna/Lucifer drama. Baphomet and Dionysus (or rather, Cameron and Umar) share a car into London just before Christmas so they can go see the Morrigan perform. We can infer that following this first show by the Morrigan Cameron gets recruited into the Pantheon while it takes a few more weeks before Ananke decides that Umar will make a suitable addition. It’s a fun, silly story that reiterates what we already know: Umar has an unshakable belief in the fundamental goodness of people, and Cameron is a ball of deep insecurities that he distracts from with bad wordplay (or great wordplay, depending on your attitude towards puns). Following up that vignette is a small scene between Tara and Ananke. This sequence feels like it would have been perfectly at home in Tara’s feature issue; it centers both her defiant streak and her artistic drive to create on a human rather than divine level. That it ends with Ananke chiding herself for encouraging Tara into a course of action that will cause undue suffering just twists the knife a bit more on the particular tragedy that is Tara.
The last major story in the issue revolves around Lucifer and Amaterasu’s friendship from before they ascended. Unlike every other story here, which is tightly contained to a single scene, this one is a series of moments from just before the Recurrence began (Hazel, the eternal Pantheon fan girl, does fan art of previous gods, and she sends Eleanor a perfectly cromulent portrait of the 1831 Lucifer, also known as the Lord Byron analogue, that fails to capture the more demonic aspects of her subject) up to the point where Hazel appears as Amaterasu for the first time, interrupting the interview that Lucifer does with Mary HK Choi (chronicled in issue #23). The sequence acts as a triptych, showing both Eleanor’s attitude towards godhood through the stages of her brief celebrity (she’s only a week from her rampage and decapitation at the point of the interview) and how her status relative to Hazel affects her sense of the friendship. There’s always a slight sense of superiority that Eleanor takes with Hazel, but it gets significantly heightened in the period between their ascensions as Eleanor settles into being the resident bad’un of the Pantheon. There’s always some antipathy about godhood on Eleanor’s part, which helps explain why she so vigorously embraces the Lucifer persona; if you have to trade the rest of your life for a couple years of celebrity, you might as well make it memorable.
Hazel, conversely, is perhaps at her most sympathetic in this story; when she’s at the stage where she has relatively little personal power, her fantasies of embodying Amaterasu seem quaint and vaguely racist but benign overall (for whatever value of benignity you can assign to racism). To Hazel, the costs of godhood are immaterial, and both Eleanor’s and her own ascensions are cause for celebration instead of mourning. It’s a weird friendship.
Laura features in the remaining two stories from the set. The first, nestled between the Tara story and the Lucifer/Amaterasu one is a two page scene that was likely cut for space way back in the first arc where we see Laura pleased with herself after she manages to pull off some casual flirting with Lucifer at the prison. It’s a cute moment and gives some dimension to later instances in the first and second arcs where she obsesses over coming off as just the right amount of cool with other members of the Pantheon (it’s also, I think, the only moment in the series where we get confirmation that she’s attracted to Lucifer–this isn’t that much of a stretch given that Laura is attracted to virtually the entire Pantheon at various times throughout the story, but it does complicate her feelings about her first divine friend in a few interesting ways; for Laura, sex always seems to be tied up in higher desires for fame and artistic recognition). The second story wraps everything back around to Baal and Inanna’s doomed romance. After Laura and Baal knock their naughty bits together for the first time, they have a brief discussion about how to handle this new development in relationship to Inanna, with whom Laura is friends and Baal understands won’t actually be jealous that they’ve hooked up. Even from the start, Baal and Laura’s relationship is defined in contrast with what Baal had with Inanna; it’s a bittersweet moment to end on.